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Humanitarian Aid on the move #10, special issue: Sahel

Sahel: responses which are having trouble finding their bearings
François Grünewald

Since the end of 2011, the Sahel has become front-page news again with the food crisis, calls for donations and terrible images on the one hand, and the political crisis, and the deterioration of the situation in Mali on the other. In this region, where there are more and more crises, and the gaps between them are getting shorter, the main aid mechanisms are those of development organizations who have in-depth contextual knowledge and work in close collaboration with governments and communities, but who have difficulty reacting rapidly. The response is not making progress and the international community faces numerous challenges. Changing gear is difficult and the work methods which need to be put in place to respond to emergencies are very different to development methods. The large arid spaces with low population density make logistics complicated and expensive, and all the more so when there is the added problems of insecurity and the escalation of asymmetrical wars.

Indeed, access is already made very difficult by the difficult physical conditions of the region: flood prone areas with montmorillonite clay, flood plains, ponds and the bourgou plains of Gourma and Houssa, sands of every type of texture, like the ‘fech-fech’ where convoys get sanded up and the ‘ergs’ where the stones slow them down and cause mechanical damage. The operating costs to reach dispersed communities quickly become very high.

Insecurity, which has intensified due to the multiplication of hostage taking, extreme declarations by irredentist groups and the permanent threat to aid workers has made certain zones inaccessible. Twenty years ago generations of development actors lived, worked and built long-term friendships with the very lively and creative civil society in these zones. In certain regions of the Sahel where there used to be agronomists, vets and doctors, there are almost no more development actors. Crises take place, international humanitarian aid is deployed to save lives… when it can get through… but it also often destabilizes markets, economies and social relations.

In these complex contexts, with security problems, violent groups with whom it is very difficult to establish dialogue, often weak governments and a rainy season which makes getting around difficult… there is a high risk that aid will get bogged down, will remain confined to the capitals and will be a long way from the people most in need.

To have a chance of being effective in these contexts, the first issue at stake is contextual understanding. There are certain generic factors throughout the Sahelian strip but each area also has its specific characteristics, making contextual analysis more complex. Knowledge of networks, cultural awareness and coordination with the organizations that are already present are essential to all operations in the region.

 Large agro-climatic strips and their North-South stratification

From Goré on the Atlantic to Mogadishu on the Indian Ocean, climatological gradients have shaped the landscape, ways of using ecosystems and societies, from the Saharan regions to the more humid fringes of the different Sudanese climates. The Northern Sahara is an area of aridity, oases, and the camel breeding peoples of the desert, including the ‘Blue Men of the Sahara’, the Tuaregs, who live in a mineral world of extreme scarcity. As one travels south, the gradual transition from just a few millimetres of rain to 200-400 mm sees the gradual development of a large ecosystem dominated by thorny trees with patches of pastureland. With herds that feed on kram-kram (wild cereal) and the little leaves of thorny trees (acacias, balanites, etc.), transhumant systems and different forms of pastoralism are able to produce milk, meat and leather, the animals representing a form of ‘four-legged saving’. Due to their hardiness, camels, sheep and goats are the basis of extremely resilient livestock systems. They are also the basis of the exchange economy (animal products for cereals) on which a large part of the region depends. Then there are the areas where grass is more abundant. These are the large cattle-breeding areas: the Fula region in Western Africa, the Borena region in Ethiopia and Karamajo (Kenya, Uganda) towards the East. As the herds move south following the grass front and the rain, problems of co-habitation arise when they pass too close to cultivated fields. It is in these areas that agricultural economies have become the most integrated into the regional market (cereals) and the global market (cotton and peanuts) and are affected the most by their vagaries.

 The main North-South routes.

But these large East-West strata are not only permeable to each other, they are also crossed by large, often very old, North-South routes which structure the whole region: the great caravan routes. The Azalai route links Algeria to Timbuktu and, from there, via a camel and donkey relay, reaches the Gourma route to Bandiagara and the cereal basins: dates and salt from the Sahara are exchanged for millet and peanuts from the Sudanese and Sudano-Sahelian regions. The routes of the Mauritanian coast join the delta of the Senegal river to the Sahraoui region, the Mauritanian Guidimaka route joins Tamanrasset to Zinder via Agadez in Niger, a route runs from the Kenyan border crossing Ethiopia to Djibouti, etc. These trade routes for salt, dates and, in the past, slaves (cf. the texts of René Caillé) were part of the desert peoples’ resilience system. Having become routes for trade in drugs, arms and migrants, they have now become part of the illegal economies which weaken the governance, ethics and morals of those who use them.